Cooking History of the Sicilian Provinces  

  

 Trinacria

 

Introduction  

  

The Roman proverb ”Siculus coquus et Sicula mensa” literally translated means: Sicilian cook and Sicilian provisions. In classical Rome, it was a status symbol for the upper class families, who already had the advantage of well cooked and tasty foods, to employ a Sicilian cook. 


Before as well as after the Romans’ rule, all those who lived in or governed Sicily appreciated the island’s cooking, and they exported the food and cookery of Sicily to their own lands. 

  

It is a fact that those who came to Sicily fell in love with the land and brought their families to live there to become part of the melting pot that today makes up the population of Sicily. 


The Phoenicians introduced the use of salt in preserving and curing fish and other foods. Sicilian cooks used salt to conserve provisions and added honey to make food more palatable. The new salty-sweet sauce in addition to the other popular sweet and sour sauce, made with sour wine and honey, made it possible to conserve food for long trips and exporting to distant places. 

  

Under the influence of the Carthaginians, the Sicilians mastered grain farming. It is believed that in this period, a rudimental form of flat bread, like a thick cracker, was made and later on transformed to sfincione. 

The Greeks called Sicily Megale’ Hellas (to the Romans, it was Magna Grecia) meaning Great Greece. They settled in this luscious and fertile land with a mild climate and founded many cities and trading posts. They increased the production of wine and the cultivation of artichokes and introduced the olive trees. For many years, long after the Greeks left Sicily, the island was the olive oil capital of the known world. 

The Greeks sponsored the rearing of cattle to increase the manufacture of dairy products. Sicilian farmers generated many varieties of cheeses, unique to the territories of production, each with a different taste due to the preparation and conservation processes. More importantly, wealthy Greek families employed local people as workers in their kitchens to take the place of the slaves, and a new craft was born, namely the cook. 

The cooks made pickled vegetables for their Greek employers. When they pickled cooked assorted vegetables and added capers, olives, spices, honey and fried artichokes, an archaic version of caponatina was born. 

  

  

 

 

The Romans did little to enhance the eclectic Sicilian cuisine. They built beautiful villas for their vacations and infrastructures like aqueducts, theaters and roads to make their life comfortable. They imposed heavy taxes on the population and monopolized the commerce of wheat to provide for the Roman people and their soldiers. 


The aristocracies used “Sicilian cook and Sicilian provisions” to celebrate their feasts. In Rome or in their vacation retreats, expert Sicilian cooks prepared their banquets with Sicilian supplies, fruits, vegetables, games, honey and wines. Rome dominated Sicily until the fourth century AC, when the Byzantines settled in Sicily in 525 AC until 827 AC. 

The Byzantines were never accepted by the Sicilians. They imposed heavy taxes, established the military draft and imposed the Christian religion on the population.  Their contribution to the Sicilian culinary art is minimal to non existent; in fact, it is believed that they introduced the pastfeli a honey and sesame seed sweet later called cubbarda or cubbaita. 

The Arabs inhabited Sicily for about 200 years, and during their rule, Sicily achieved a stage of welfare, order and prosperity. As a result of this wealth and the introduction of new farming products coupled with exotic spices, different dishes were created and new cooking techniques were devised. 

One of the new products manufactured during this period was pasta, the food that since then has influenced the eating habits of the entire world. 

The first pasta factory in the world was established in Trabia, a small town outside Palermo. It was selected for its slightly humid climate, its mild temperature, the crystalline spring water without calcium or any other impurities and for the quality of the local grain, the durum wheat; these are necessities in the making of good pasta. 


Today in Trabia, pasta is made on a smaller scale, but the system and art of making pasta from Trabia spread all over Italy. Now Italy is the world’s biggest producer of pasta. 

The Sicilians used their skills combined with the expertise of the Arabs and the introduction of new ingredients to create novel procedures and combinations with an influence that, after 1000 years, is unmistakably still present in today’s Sicilian cooking. The tastes of sour, sweet and salty were paired or combined to create interesting dimensions in the flavor of food.  To accomplish this task, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and pistachios were extensively used. 

The Sicilians combined the snow of Etna with honey and enjoyed this cold treat in the summer; the Saracens improved this dessert by adding sugar cane and fresh juices to the snow. They called it sharbat, or sorbet. A dessert like the cassata, it was modified by adding marzipan, a mixture of almonds and sugar cane and decorated with fresh fruits dipped in sugar syrup, candied to preserve and sweeten them. During this time, cookies and cakes made with candied fruits, pistachios and cinnamon were baked. Sugar was added to the cubbarda, originally made only with honey and sesame seeds. 

The Normans introduced salted cod (in Sicilian, baccala’), dry cod, stockfish (stoccafisso) and smoked herrings, elements often found on Sicilian tables. 

During the following five centuries, many people touched our shores. 

The Jewish peoples living on the island could not cook on Saturday for religious reasons. Therefore, they were skilled in food preservation and cooked the food in advance to be eaten for their Shabbats.  Using their ability combined with the local expertise, they mastered their cooking, which was later popularized all over the Italian peninsula as cucina ebraica, Jewish cookery.
They introduced a line of baked and fried pastries in the shape of half moons and stuffed with salty or sweet ingredients to make a brackish snack or tasty dessert. 

In the thirteenth century, the French were unwelcome guests who ruled Sicily until the uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers, which began in Palermo in March 1282. Beatrix, the daughter of Raymond-Berenger IV, Count of Provence, married Charles I d’Anjou, king of Sicily and Naples. When she lived in Palermo, she made an effort to Frenchify the court and to teach the Sicilian cooks the Provencal way of cooking. The olive oil, garlic, olives and anchovies, basic staple ingredients in the older and much more complex Sicilian cooking schools, they became fundamental in the Provencal style of cooking.

The Provencal style of cooking appropriated the knowledge of the sauces and style of the local cooks, the pairing of different tastes—sweet, sour, salty—and made Sicilian recipes their own but with fancy French names.


Effectively, the improvements were limited only to the appearance of a few dishes, and the only noticeable influence was in the semantics. Oh, yes: they called the cooks Monzu’, a contraction of Monsieur! 

The Spaniards introduced the empanada in Sicily called impanata, schiacciata, pastizzu or fuate, which are a turnover made of bread dough and usually stuffed with vegetables, meat or fish. Their long occupation of the island contributed to and increased the tendency of the Monzu’ and general population to experiment with new dishes. This trait became especially prevalent when new products like cocoa, potatoes, peppers, squash and tomatoes were introduced from America. Tomatoes were not fully appreciated and consumed as food until the seventeenth century. 

During this period, the taste of bitter-salty-sweet was successfully experimented with when the impanata was served stuffed with bitter spinach, sweet raisins, regular and bitter almonds and salted anchovies. 

In the late eighteenth century, an English trader named John Woodhouse discovered a wine made in the town of Marsala, aged in oak casks, with the same characteristic of the fortified wines imported in England and produced in Spain and Portugal, the Madeira and the Port. In 1796, John Woodhouse opened a winery for the production of Marsala wine in large quantities which were successfully exported to England and all over the world. 

In 1860, Garibaldi initiated the military operations that successfully unified Italy. 

At present, Sicily is an autonomous region divided into nine provinces: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse and Trapani.